Exclusive Wholly Cinema interview with filmmaker/animator Robert Valley.
Blog post by Ross Munro for Wholly Cinema.
Photos by Maria Munro.
After having the recent pleasure of watching a collection of this year’s Oscar-nominated animated short films, I wasn’t prepared for getting my mind fully blown courtesy of the evening’s final short: Vancouver animator Robert Valley’s tightly packed epic tour-de-force “Pear Cider and Cigarettes” chronicling the rise and tragic fall of Valley’s childhood friend Techno Stypes.
Known for his cutting edge work on music videos for the Gorillaz (“On Melancholy Hill”) and metal meisters Metallica (the band’s blistering Lemmy tribute “Murder One”), the soft-spoken and thoughtful Valley was kind enough to invite us fine folk from Wholly Cinema into his studio for an interview.
“Pear Cider and Cigarettes”- complete with Valley’s own noir-ish narration and crammed with a high school era music soundtrack of luminaries including Black Sabbath and Pink Floyd to name but a few amongst the 22 songs featured within- follows the shaggy dog tale of the filmmaker on his personal long and winding journey to help his once mighty and popular friend Techno whom, after suffering a head trauma, falls down the rabbit hole of alcoholism that eventually leads to the last ditch spectre of a hospital in China and a dicey liver transplant.
To say that the film is highly autobiographical is a massive understatement as Valley- the self proclaimed “weird artist guy” growing up- was able to successfully bring this story to life.
“It’s very much a story of us growing up in that period of time. It was really enjoyable to me to be recounting all these stories and imagery from back then”, said Valley. “I was able to rectify a lot of things in my own mind. To me it was like living through all those events again.”
Structurally, the filmmaker confessed that his film was constructed with another film having to do with the joys and bonding of high school friends later faced with life’s disillusioning realities- Michael Cimino’s Oscar winning epic of the Vietnam war, “The Deer Hunter”.
“In the beginning of my film, like “The Deer Hunter”, you need to have the good times so later on you can experience a sense of loss in the story”, continued Valley. “That’s why in “Pear Cider”’s early parts I wanted to have lots of colors of summer and bright music- to give a sense of nostalgia.”
Asked about other influences, the animator expressed that as “a kid I used to sneak off by myself and watch “The Elephant Man”. That was some disturbing stuff but I was fixated by it- I used to mix that up with Clint Eastwood’s “Every Which Way But Loose”.
As for the journey of making “Pear Cider and Cigarettes” itself, Valley confessed it was a six year process that began with the genesis and creation of his self-published graphic novels of the same story.
“The graphic novels served the purpose of being used for the film’s story boards in the art direction”, expressed Valley. “The ideas was always to do the graphic novel first and then the animated version of the book afterwards. The movie wasn’t so much written as it was remembered- I wanted it to sound more like I was telling you the story in a pub.”
On the long crazy trip of landing his provocative and imaginative piece of animation on the doorstep of an Oscar nomination:
Valley: “The goal pretty well right along was to get nominated for an Academy Award- that was quite clearly the high water mark we wanted to reach. My longtime producer Cara Speller looked into the rules and discovered the time limit for a short film was 35 minutes. This film was actually originally 40 minutes so I had to cut about four minutes out. If you look at our running time now you’ll see it’s at 34 minutes and 59 seconds”.
And in a bid to inspire filmmakers everywhere dealing with the painful rejection of their cinematic creations, Valley further illuminated his tribulations getting “Pear Cider” pivoted into the Oscar race: “After the film was done this past June, we proceeded to submit it to film festivals. We submitted it to Annecy (located in France, it’s one of the world’s most influential fests showcasing animation)- they didn’t accept it. Then Sundance passed on it.”
Then followed even more rejections from the likes of SXSW in Austin, Toronto and his hometown of Vancouver until the film found a haven at the BFI film festival in London (where the film’s co-production company Passion Pictures Animation is based).
With the fate of qualifying for the Oscars now lessening at an alarming rate, they took matters into their own hands by resorting to renting and four walling a Los Angeles-based movie theatre with a week’s screenings of “Pear Cider” and hoping that their work would start a wave of notice amongst the Academy’s membership.
“We weren’t expecting anything”, remembers Valley, “but then we made the Academy’s “Long List” of 70 animated films. Then we made the short list of 10”- eventually making the final cut of nominees of course.
Asked of his experiences while attending the star-studded Hollywood awards ceremony, Valley answered with his usual mix of humbleness and candor:
“I didn’t go down because of a work visa issue in the States. So me and a friend just turned off our phones and went for a pub crawl- it was the brown carpet tour of Vancouver. If a place was showing the Academy Awards we said, ‘Could you turn that off please…?’.
With a sense of completion in telling the bittersweet and passionate story of friendship and loss the Emily Carr animation grad set out to make, filmmaker Valley- whose future projects include more music videos and developing an animated feature documentary, took a moment to reflect on the personal lessons of his provocative and moving film:
“Techno had a head injury- it’s predictable that a lot of people like that end up with addiction problems. He was never a drunk before that- it just grabbed him really bad. With the film I was just trying to stay away from passing judgment- it was just the way it was.”
Valley thoughtfully added, “I think what’s more sad than dying is the life you have just before you die- languishing in the hospital, sitting there alone without any visitors. That’s the saddest part.”
Animator Robert Valley will be attending in person and screening his Academy Award nominated short “Pear Cider and Cigarettes” at The Rio Theatre in Vancouver on Tuesday, March 21/17 at 6:30pm. Don’t you dare miss it!!
Viva La Cinema!